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Congress authorizes new Arctic icebreakers for Coast Guard

December 17, 2020 GMT

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Congress has passed a bill authorizing the addition of Coast Guard Polar Security Cutters for use as icebreakers, and an Alaska senator said the Trump administration is considering leasing an icebreaker owned by a Republican donor.

The Coast Guard has two icebreakers, but only one is operating following an August fire that damaged the cutter Healy. Ongoing construction work on a new icebreaker is not expected to be finished until 2024.

The Coast Guard Reauthorization Act is part of the National Defense Authorization Act passed by Congress for Fiscal Year 2021.

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Republican U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska coauthored the bill with Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington and Republican Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi.

Sullivan in a statement thanked his colleagues “for recognizing the importance of the Arctic, and for supporting the vessels and infrastructure that are needed to realize America’s role as an Arctic nation.”

Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska expressed support for the approval of additional icebreakers.

“I’m proud of the progress that we have made to help the U.S. strengthen its capacity and presence in the Arctic as other Arctic and non-Arctic nations expand theirs,” Murkowski said.

Russia has 53 icebreakers and Canada has seven, U.S. Coast Guard data show.

Sullivan said at a Senate hearing last week that the White House is considering leasing a private icebreaker to strengthen the Coast Guard’s operation “as early as the end of this month.”

The U.S. needs a persistent presence in the Arctic to hold off adversaries, Sullivan said.

Sullivan referred at the hearing to “another icebreaker that’s in Florida” as a possible leasing option under consideration.

The Aiviq, owned by Edison Chouest Offshore International, was the only privately-owned, medium-weight icebreaker in the U.S. listed with the Coast Guard. Tracking websites showed the vessel was docked in Tampa, Florida, at the time of Sullivan’s comments.

Louisiana-based shipbuilders Edison Chouest built the $200-million Aiviq for a Shell Oil Company offshore Arctic drilling project that was later discontinued.

Company owner Gary Chouest and his wife have given millions of dollars to the Republican Party and primarily Republican political candidates.

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This version drops the incorrect USS designation for the cutter Healy in the second paragraph.